Lucy Renee Mathilde Shwob Claude Courlis Daniel Douglas
Claude Cahun should be held responsible,
Claude Cahun should be held responsible,
Claude Cahun should be held responsible for planting the seeds of radical gender critique for the 20th and 21st century,
Claude Cahun should be held responsible,
Claude Cahun should be held responsible, but the tragedy is that very little is known about Claude Cahun.
So, with this in mind, who is Claude Cahun and why should they be held responsible?
The beginning; the camera, the image, the self
Claude Cahun was born Lucy Renee Mathilda Schwob in Nante, France on the 25th of October, 1894. Her practice stands out as one of the most important and dynamic aspects of feminist progression from the the last 150 years. A massively influential character with an artillery of work that not only put the wheels in motion for the emancipation of women in art, but for women outside of the shackles of domesticity and beyond. Part complex photographic auteur and part revolutionary suggestion. Her practice is a persuasion in the very aesthetic dawn of feminism. She is neither man nor women, both gender politics and surrealist forefather. Toying with the very possibilities of what both women and man can achieve through their trained eyes and actions. It was Cahun who managed to forcefully dismiss all that had come before and give a formidable credence to territory uncharted, land ungoverned and poses never articulated. Her work stands out today as being as fresh and fearlessly intuitive as it was during her progressively forward thinking years as artist, muse and political radicant.
Taking up photography at the tender age of 18, Cahun leant on self-portraiture as a medium of expressing concerns around gender stereotype, feminist iteration and the possibility of being. Cahun the persona, emerged after several drafted pseudonyms, moving from Lucy Renee Mathilda Schwob, to Claude Courlis and Daniel Douglas, before finally resting on Cahun. From there the story of Cahun’s life does not get simpler or more settled within the pigeon hole of the feminist-artist. Even to suggest that such a role existed during the narrative of Cahun’s experimental relationship with all that surrounded her is but a mis-apprehension. Articulating Cahun’s fascinating position in relation to what we can happily denounce as feminist or post-feminist is a facade of superficial direction. These ideologies, which purveyors of feminist art, literature and expanding theory are so well accustomed too could not have been more a mere pin prick on the horizon. Cahun, in her work, life, thoughts and ideas brought that horizon smashing down and with that dared to re-imagine a sphere which to her knowledge hadn’t even existed in the future.
Thus, the difficult nature inherent when trying to explain the shear weight a character such as Cahun carries. The thought of comparison to other, more recent practices and feminist art seems somewhat redundant. With a heavy brazen assurance that the very impetus for most of what came cascading after her, could just as much be said to have been because of her. This - is how important Claude Cahun is.
The tide of knowledge in and around Cahun has only just started to ebb and flow with accolades and appreciation for what she achieved and how that very achievement bore an almost unquenched hole, within the narrative of both art and the female within art.
Paris; from outside, in
It is best to stick to structure when totalising a reading of such an infinite. “Keep the audiences attention by telling them dates” (the internal narrative of this article screams). 1922 - aged 28 Cahun and her partner Suzanne Malherbe, alias Marcel Moore or in the words of Cahun; “the other me,” move from Nante to Paris . What little is recognised is equidistant to what is actually known of this time. Cahun and Moore set about a more than erratic relationship to the chaos of the Parisian Surrealist movement; impromptu salons, coffee house discussions, smokey wine fuelled debates raging high and low into the misk of the night time. Cahun and Moore transgress the Surrealist art movement with uncomfortable ease of being. The very nature of Cahun’s ability and assurance within such a movement is shocking to say the least. That a female form may dance and parade within the very design and hallucinations of Surrealist life so tenderly and with such affluence is astounding. Not to say that the Surrealist movement was at all male-driven, but the very act of such display of experimentation from the voice of a women through any art movement of the time is despicably forceful. Flaunting, and more importantly to this article, being suspect of everything. The relationship that Cahun drew on when combating her approach to Surrealism was that of extraneous abstraction. Coming from the outskirts of society and manifesting the gaze of both man and women with both aggression and neutrality in equal measure. This was a persona from outside of the capital, forcing themselves into the heart of experimental Parisian culture, and extricating the contents of Surrealism with such ability and willpower. This ease and remote strength diminished the boundaries between Lucy Schwob and her alter-ego; leaving in its wake the tide for Cahun to take all and renounce possession.
The images from the Paris years classically father what is understood as ‘feminist practice.’ Working collaboratively with Marcel Moore, Cahun fostered a host of different images, disguises, assumptions and re-presentations. Most remaining untitled, the work could be compared with the practice of contemporary artist Cindy Sherman; forward thinking and assertive. Leaning towards subjectivity as the idea of the self and the unpacking of the self astutely remains paramount. One image shows Cahun dramatically fashioning a short razor-sharp haircut sprayed gold, striking a pose which would remain obtusely confrontational even by todays fashion and street culture. Her mouth pursed and wanton, the collar upright and standing to attention, the gap and lust of an obviously protruding Adams apple accusatorially hanging directly in our line of vision. Who are we to suggest that this figure is either man or woman, and how are the signs created to read the image thus? The territory that Cahun associated herself with is wide and far reaching. Challenging pre-conceptions of women in art, as well as affecting the perception of women in fashion, literature and politics. It almost seems tragically retrograde that the cusp of where this has lead women, is back into a self-rhetoric.
In the article “How the ‘new feminism’ went wrong” by Charlotte Raven, Raven talks of the fame and career of Madonna as a commitment to getting to the next level reinforces her fans’ belief that it’s possible and desirable to “reinvent” your world, as well as yourself, to match your inflated self-image. Her failure to smile once during the whole 40-year process suggests that this form of self-advancement is as enjoyable as suffragism was for Emily Wilding Davison.” Here is the crux; the abandon and devastation of self-aggrandising neo-libralism adopted by women in the ongoingneed for consistently having to prove ones worth in all of its capitalist glory. That, in essence, the fracture of such paradigms as Sex and The City, Madonna et al only serve to breakdown the very essence of feminism into a paradox hell bent on advancement at any costs, luxury, wealthand attitude; in the pursuit of a career and the constant need for total control at all levels. Even more tragic is the loss of action, expression and emancipation.
Art as form, art as function, function as all that is political
Along with Andre Breton and Georges Bataille, Cahun ‘actioned’ her motives and intentions through the boundary-crossing Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists (AEAR), which formed in 1932. AEAR, an organisation whose foundations lay in a far left-Trotsky ideology, supported a manifesto which sought to safe guard cultural production at the time. A revolutionary idea, that sadly has very little remnant now. This faculty looked towards a early-stage trade union for the production of far-left radical art, writing and music. It was this fundamental principle which shatters the word responsibility in the light of Cahun and his / her practice. It makes for the word responsibility to become part societal reaction, but even more interwoven; part underlying feature. A momentum which seeks for the politicisation of practice to become personal, to exist on par with practice to the inbuilt extreme of personality trait. The task of the feminist revolutionary so it would seem, was engrained in the actual genetic make up of Cahun. That, as much as Cahun was fashioned from Schwob, Schwob defined the characteristic and genetics of Cahun.
The life of Cahun spans a nomadic sensibility, moving from Paris to Jersey in 1938 with Marcel Moore. This draw towards nomadism equally burdens a reading of Cahun’s practice. As the author or actor might find it difficult to pin down or ‘place’ exactly how to establish a relationship to Cahun, do we address the artists, poet, photographer as she or he? Cahun troubles the previous expectations burdening a reading of a female artist as well as justifiably appropriating the slogans of a male artist. Time and time again Cahun managed to find within her / his practice a way to critique the very origin of what it is to be both male and female. With this in mind, Cahun’s work doesn’t seem to want to surrender to either, she is neither he nor she, and certainly the critique does not find an end point in a practice based in the pursuit of something so conclusive. Aesthetically, such superficial glimpses into Cahun’s practice are definitely appropriated by the musicians Grace Jones especially her Nightclubbing album, and Annie Lennox / Eurythmics album ‘Touch,’ such blatant androgyny is all the mastermind of Cahun. Overtly sexual by nature, but essentially quizzical and referential - the time for women to complex their boundaries came when Cahun lay claim to the soil she walked on.
The work that is most familiar to this tale is Cahun’s self-portraiture. Over and over again, Cahun would resurface in a grandiose selection of garments that not only created an unease within the spectator but also helped to move Cahun through the many myriads and gestures associated with the idea of the self, image and the need to perform. The very aspect of self-portraiture could have been said to have been masterfully subjected through the domination Cahun used to possess and perform the many roles and reversals placed beyond the shutter. Tricking the image into suggestions of manliness or womanliness, Cahun played with the obvious and not so-obvious, tangling this untangled narrative of composed and curated lyrical illusion. It was this aesthetic which surpassed all that came after Cahun, and pronounced spectacularly how much Cahun simply enjoyed what Cahun did. An entertainer, by and large, and a triumph in every other aspect.
In 1944 both Cahun and Moore were arrested at the pinnacle of WWII, charged and facing the death sentence. This was a reaction to Cahun and Moore engaging in the pursuit of anti-Nazi propaganda. Issuing prints and text onto tissue which was stuffed into the cars and pockets of the German troops. The continued expression of a radical attention to political detail crafted an embroidery of persuasions and unforgiving resourcefulness. Today, it is not de rigueur for an artist to associate or to be seen associating with the activity of radical politics (if such a thing still exists). That, in fact what Cahun and Moore played upon was the ambiguity inherent within political excess to underline and underpin their own creative and artistic affluence. Both Cahun and Moore were eventually released after spending a year imprisoned. The end of the war was the saving grace to make sure neither came to such an unforgiving end.
and with this - to the end
“I do not want to stitch, stab, puncture, but with the most extreme point. The rest of the body, the following, what a waste of time! I want to travel only at the prow of myself”
These words articulate a person whose inbuilt attitude towards the boundaries of man and women helped surface a new dimension of critique. This new dimension was so hidden that it needed for an irrational narcissism to de-tangle the very ideas of presumptions held so dear to western society. The difficulty when looking back at such a practice is that it becomes housed or sheltered by what has come since, that, the nodding appreciation of the silent museum visitor glances and does not need to actually think about how marvellous such works actually were. The timing was impeccable. Cahun was potentially the only female artist to be involved in the London Surrealist Exhibition (New Burlington Gallery) and the Exposition surrealist d’Objects (Charles Ratton Gallery, Paris) both in 1936. Her male peers and associates find themselves plinthed and heralded; Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Andre Breton, Paul Eluard and Man Ray to name but a few. Yet, to this day her work has only appeared twice in London within the past ten years; always within group shows and almost always focusing on the irrevocable truth of its gender-ambiguity. In time, this association will also weather and tire, the mountains of societal difficulties with how and what man and woman act squashing and exploding. If Cahun was to always want to travel beyond the very possibility of what she, her and himself could and can achieve then might it be possible to wonder in the sober light of day, that even now there is still more than meets the eye. As each generation brings and adds a new account and anecdote to the argument of how man and woman do what they do, it could be pain staking to realise what the work of Cahun does. That it survives not by mere association to the idea of man and / or woman, but by the fact that Cahun so early recognised the very nature of gender as articulated chaos. That, though man and women share in the pursuit of articulation, all that manifests is the product of pure abstraction; the very prow of the self.
With a tip-off from Art Licks last Tuesday, I headed to Whitechapel for an evening of performance at The Mews Project Space, programmed by co-founders Carlos Noronha Feio and Mikael Larsson. If you’ve not been before, I highly recommend you make your way to this back-alley space, just behind the Whitechapel gallery and a few feet off the high street up Brick Lane.
The Mews is hidden behind an unassuming industrial grey gate, super easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for! But luckily I arrived just in time to meet Patrick Coyle on his way in, whose performance was first in the evening’s line-up. Coyle’s work, Alphabetes, took us on an alphabetical tour of twenty six items of ephemera and printed material that he’d pinned, from A to Z, at head height around the Project Space. Handing everyone a print-out of the tour to follow as he read it aloud himself, he wittily presented a work that tripled up as a performance, a text and a series of curated objects. Crafting slippages between the visual and verbal quality of language, he played with our experience of what was heard, read and seen. View his work on re-title.com.
Next up, in an intimate room no-bigger-than-a-bike-shed, Bettina Wind’s slide show performance, familiar stories (and other strange discoveries) guided us through a carousel of archival family photographs, building visual narratives and drawing fictional lines between each image. Her work links quite beautifully with a show recently showing at Battersea Arts Centre, ‘Class of 76’ by Third Angel. Read more about Bettina Wind’s practice, and Third Angel at BAC.
One tip - The Mews is powered by a single generator, so evening events get cold as cold. Worth shivering for, the last and possibly most surreal performance of the evening took place out in the mews itself, on a stage built of wooden palettes and with a perfectly framed backdrop of the Gherkin, poised between two brick walls. Adam Latham and Rich Cash played a mournful three-minute tune with their band, each wearing a hand-drawn paper mask, with the drone of the generator behind them and clouds of stage smoke pumping out in front. All this, dramatically lit by the headlights of a parked car. One played the double bass, another was on the accordion and I’m sure there was a tambourine in there too. Watch recordings of similarly glorious performances by the band.
Next up, showing for two days only – don’t miss The Mews co-founders’ joint exhibition MIKAEL LARSSON - CARLOS NORONHA FEIO, 20- 21 March 2010.
- Lily Hall
We have had a really active day here at the colony, everyone’s been working hard to finish their installations. Most of Artinavan are heading back to London tomorrow to tend to our space at the Brixton Village Market.
The rest of the colony will continue to work until the grand opening to the public on Friday night.
We anticipate the thought of leaving Århus with apprehension. Bureau Detours have made this our home for the week and we’ve all put so much in to the design and construction of the space. It’s been fascinating watching team projects come together in a way that reflects the idea of a collective. The approach we have taken focusses on communicating creative process and interacting with each other and a functioning space. We’ve been living, building, eating and sleeping together and have worked hard to transform the warehouse studio space into a reflection of the group vision.
Today’s been a highly productive day here at the colony. After making a full English for the whole team we held a meeting to finalise ideas using yesterday’s maquettes. We’ve been hard at work this afternoon extending the interlinking bridges and chambers, which bring the whole space together. We’ve also added more seating and some shelving to the bar. The red light district has been filled with coloured lights and signs and we’ve almost finished painting the studio walls.
Artinavan are planning to work into the early hours tonight as tomorrow will be our last full day here in Arhus.
Production today has been slower than usual, due to team moral in hangover mood after last night’s pre-opening. We’ve all been absorbed in our own creative projects during the day, people have been experimenting with materials and the welding workshop saw its first piece of action. The collective have been working on video documentations and short films, and producing maquettes for possible large scale construction.
We’ve also been exploring the local area, some of the group went down to the harbour to reflect on the week so far. Tomorrow’s going to be an active day transforming the preliminary experiments into large scale finished articles.